The “What Would Jesus Cut?” debate

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Economics / Faith & Theology / Political Philosophy / Society & Culture

While elected officials in Washington have been debating over the debt ceiling, another robust conversation has been materializing at the intersection of faith, poverty and economic policy.

In July, an ecumenical coalition of Christian leaders met with President Obama to present a statement—the “Circle of Protection“—casting welfare programs as a moral imperative. Claiming a commitment to the values outlined in Matthew 25 (“…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”), groups like Sojourners, led by God’s Politics author Jim Wallis, insist that “funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut.” This initiative reflects a larger movement among young Christians toward a view of wealth redistribution as “social justice.”

While the moral appeal for welfare is nothing new, the boldness of couching it as an explicit commandment of Christ adds a new log to the fire. After a bloody culture war in which the church fought at the front lines, many young evangelicals resented the pigeonholing of Christians as a right-wing voting block. Those sentiments were intensified as Republicans in the Bush era were characterized as ignorant and bigoted. The current fiscal debate has provided an opportunity to set up camp alongside the progressive wing in a way that emphasizes compassion. Unfortunately, while they are right in suggesting that “budgets are moral documents,” they confuse individual responsibility with collective coercion.

In response to this shift, and recognizing the lack of sound economic principle in the church, a countermovement has emerged declaring the virtue of free enterprise and the danger of bloated government. Throughout the Twittosphere, Christian capitalists have been critiquing the agenda of the Circle of Protection, making the case that government programs frequently exacerbate and prolong poverty, and that Christ calls us to serve one another as voluntary individuals, not through a bureaucratically adulterated political game. Furthermore, they argue, a burdensome regulatory and tax system slows economic growth and makes it more difficult for individuals at every income level to pursue a fruitful life.

“Christ calls us to serve one another as voluntary individuals, not through a bureaucratically adulterated political game.”

A full-page ad by the American Enterprise Institute’s Values & Capitalism project appeared in Politico, in opposition to a previous ad by Wallis. In turn, Sojourners’ communications director Tim King attempted to clarify the Circle’s position, albeit ineffectively. King writes that the Circle does not seek a “blanket exception for all poverty programs under any and all cuts,” yet everything in the statement communicates otherwise—including the aforementioned quote that such programs “should not be cut.” If what King says is true, the authors of the Circle’s statement were merely sloppy and irresponsible in their prose.

Adding depth to the conversation, the Values & Capitalism project, represented by Eric Teetsel, is helping to build a new coalition—Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE)—to provide a counterweight to the Circle. Teetsel co-authored CASE’s Letter to the President, requesting their own meeting with Obama. The letter dismisses the idea that the Circle of Protection represents a majority view among Christians, and provides a freedom-oriented, values-based approach to fiscal responsibility. The letter, like the Circle, is signed by a wide array of respected Christian leaders. The letter was made available for the public to sign, and continues to add names. (You will find my moniker at #33. sign here)

This discussion is a very important one for the Church body, though there is a tendency to shy from such complex and controversial topics. Religion and politics are ostensibly forbidden from friendly discourse—especially in the same sentence. But there are some issues that cannot be passed over. Public policy must be rooted in ethical purpose, and if the church is silent, others will fill the gap. We must engage fully in a search for understanding about humanity and social institutions, and we must do so with grace and cordiality. We are first and foremost brothers and sisters in Christ, and secondly agents of His justice on Earth.

For those interested in exploring this debate, Remnant Culture has posted a convenient round-up of responses from various Christian writers on the “What Would Jesus Cut?” question.

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